Updated: March 28, 2021 9:02:58 am
M K Stalin was always meant to lead his party, the natural heir of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi. Yet, unusually for a political dynast, he had to wait until age 64 before he could become working president of the DMK in January 2017, and later, party president after the death of his father on August 7, 2018.
If Stalin’s was a slow, yet steady, rise to the top post in his party, it was in the most unlikeliest of situations that Edappadi K Palaniswami, among AIADMK matriarch J Jayalalithaa’s loyalists, became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa died in December 2016, plunging her highly centralised party into ferment, with leaders openly fighting to stake claim to the seat she had left vacant. The fire that began then is yet to be doused.
In Tamil Nadu, a state whose politics has revolved around personalities, this is the first election without either Karunanidhi or Jayalalithaa, two of its most towering leaders. Yet, this hasn’t taken the sheen off the election or the two parties that head into the poll arena with two new commanders — Stalin on the DMK side, and EPS, as Palaniswami is called, in the AIADMK corner. Together, the alliances they head hold sway over 70-80% of the voter base.
Old hand vs newbie
Despite not being named party chief until very late in life, Stalin has been around for long, a constant shadow of his father, unlike EPS who was on the periphery of politics even until five years ago.
Unlike Stalin who grew up in Chennai as a VVIP kid, EPS has a humble background — he is from a Gounder (OBC) farmer family in Salem. While Stalin had the privilege to correct himself in a largely trial-and-error life, the CM’s post came to EPS in the most fortuitous of circumstances, in a coup facilitated by Jayalalithaa’s friend and companion V K Sasikala.
Stalin has had virtually no challenger as he worked his way to the top post, with elder brother M K Alagiri an irritant at best. Now as party president, his hold over the DMK is absolute.
The other players
Even when Stalin took clear decisions to elevate his son Udhayanidhi in the party, he hardly faced any opposition, not even from step-sister Kanimozhi, Lok Sabha MP from Thoothukudi who isn’t known to assert her space within the party.
Senthil Balaji, one of Jayalalithaa’s favourite ministers who, after her death, moved to the Sasikala-TTV Dhinakaran camp, before joining the DMK in late 2018, says of Stalin, “I have worked with Jayalalithaa, Dhinakaran and now Thalapathi (leader, as Stalin is called). I would say Thalapathi is the most accessible leader. He never imposes a hierarchy… He is the most hardworking leader I have known.”
Unlike Stalin, EPS had a very shaky start. People around him recall how vulnerable he was before the BJP when he was forced to throw his benefactor Sasikala out of the party.
After Jayalalithaa’s death, there had emerged two power centres in the party — Sasikala and the BJP-backed O Panneerselvam who was made CM. But the Sasikala faction defeated Panneerselvam in a floor test in the Assembly and made EPS CM in early 2017. Soon, Sasikala surrendered in the disproportionate assets case. With Sasikala in jail, the Panneerselvam and EPS factions came together, on the condition that she would be kept out of the party.
But a lot has changed since then, with EPS even getting Panneerselvam to endorse him as CM candidate. His stand on Sasikala had also changed, and he refused to accept her return to the party despite pressure from the BJP and RSS.
By the end of 2018, he had come into his own, insisting on a cavalcade of dozens of vehicles, much like Jayalalithaa’s, and even sacking a minister, something the late leader did with abandon. EPS ensured the sacked IT minister, M Manikandan, who is backed by the powerful Maravar community, didn’t get a ticket to contest this time.
A minister from western Tamil Nadu said, “EPS consolidated power within the party and government by bringing more people from his Gounder community into the police as well as in key government posts. He was an accidental CM, but he is trying to do his best.”
Pointing at the Rs 2 lakh crore debt run up by the government in the last few years, the minister said, “It only shows that he used that money for different works and schemes. Even if you write off 10-15% of that towards corruption, it’s still a lot of development projects,” the minister said.
EPS was, however, seen as giving in to pressure from the Centre on several matters that the public was opposed to — conducting NEET exams, and not releasing Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts despite a state Cabinet decision, among others.
On the campaign trail
Given the limited time they have before elections, both the parties have decided to hold road shows instead of public rallies.
Though the DMK camp has been running a sleek campaign amid a pandemic, Stalin’s road shows haven’t been too exciting. Unlike his father, Stalin is anyway not known to be much of an orator and his speeches have been mostly about corruption charges surrounding the EPS government.
However, Stalin’s camp is quietly confident. Asked if the DMK was off to a slow start, a leader said, “Do we appear lazy? Maybe, yes. Because we know we are winning this time.”
But if EPS’s road shows are any indication, he isn’t doing too badly either. He draws a decent crowd at each of his stops and his speeches propagate the government’s schemes and projects, reminding people about the notorious episodes of rowdyism during the previous 2006-11 DMK regime.
“When Jayalalithaa died, he thought that AIADMK would also die. He was restless, he couldn’t wait to become CM. Unfortunately, he never imagined that a farmer like me coming from the most humble background would emerge after Amma,” EPS told a cheering crowd at Thiruvarur, the birthplace of Karunanidhi.
It is this “farmer” image that EPS has been flaunting this election. He ridicules Stalin, shames his statements, points to Stalin’s gaffes and calls his speeches “unbecoming of a CM candidate”.
EPS is equally combative while dismissing the massive corruption allegations surrounding several big ticket tenders floated during his term, many linked to people who are relatives or his close aides.
In December 2020, Stalin submitted a 97-page corruption document against AIADMK ministers, in which EPS was accused of corruption in the award of tenders to relatives, among other charges.
But even his rivals concede that no CM in recent decades has travelled as much as EPS has in the past four years.
EPS has also addressed way more road shows than Stalin. While the DMK leader has been addressing not more than five events a day, sometimes even less, EPS makes about 20 to 22 stops a day, each drawing a crowd of 2,000-10,000. By the second week of March, he had covered at least 120 constituencies, with most of his road shows well publicised.
In the absence of rallies, a strategy employed by both parties is to publicise aerial photographs of the road shows. Captured by drones, these photographs, taken in small towns, give the visual effect of huge gatherings.
Of the two, Stalin has a better record in governance but he has also had a longer term in administrative posts such as Chennai Mayor (1996-02) and Deputy CM (2006-11).
It was during Stalin’s tenure as mayor that the city witnessed major facelifting projects — building flyovers and launching the ‘Singara Chennai (Beautiful Chennai)’ waste management project.
EPS too can boast of a few game-changing projects, including the Athikadavu-Avinashi ground water recharge and drinking water supply scheme. And if Stalin built flyovers in Chennai, EPS did the same for Salem, of which his constituency Edappadi is a part. In an election without Jayalalithaa, there are inevitable comparisons between her and EPS.
Information and Publicity minister Kadambur Raju, talking a break from his campaign at Kovilpatti near Thoothukudi, said, “EPS is more efficient than Amma… while Jayalalithaa was undoubtedly the leader with charisma.”
Irrespective of who holds the reins of power, Tamil Nadu has had a reputation of being run by an efficient bureaucracy. “In Tamil Nadu, an effective governance model is about giving a free hand to the bureaucracy, which is backed by an efficient system,” said a senior government secretary.
An IG-rank official said Stalin, as Deputy CM, is known to have kept some of the finest and clean officers in his team.
Bureaucrats blame the corruption allegations plaguing the EPS government on the multiple power centres in the AIADMK.
“There are many ministers who act as proxy CMs and some regional, community heads acting as ministers,” the senior secretary said.
In such a power system, EPS’s failing — and possibly his strength — is that he rarely flexed his muscle at his party colleagues.
There have also been instances of EPS being kept in the dark, even by junior ministers and officers, about key decisions.
One such incident was the transfer of the Thoothukudi and Tirunelveli SPs, apparently at the behest of a minister in his Cabinet, last month. When he got to know of it, a furious EPS asked for the orders to be reversed.
He was also seen as being slow to take action against erring officers. In the Sathankulam custodial murder case — father-son duo Jayaraj and Bennix were allegedly tortured and killed in police custody in June last year — it took 10 days for the accused policemen to be suspended. Similarly in the case of IG-rank officer S Murugan, who was accused of sexual harassment in 2018 by a woman SP, it took the Election Commission to transfer him last week from the post of IG-South Zone. In the case of a special DGP (whose name is being withheld as per court direction) accused of sexual harassment by an IPS officer, the government suspended him on March 18 only after multiple directions from the Madras HC.
“About 30% of our strength in the police force is women. If they can’t avail basic justice even after meeting the CM with a serious complaint, why should they trust this government,” said a DIG rank official.
In the previous elections, it was ‘lottery king’ Santiago Martin and Rajashankar, a businessman who was accused of land grabbing cases during the previous DMK regime, who mobilised resources for Stalin’s campaign.
While Martin has been largely out of Team Stalin this time round, Rajashankar and Stalin’s son-in-law Sabareesan are now considered his key men. His election team also has businessman S N Jayamurugan of SNJ Distilleries, and much tainted DMK leaders S Jagathrakshakan and EV Velu (the Income Tax seized Rs 3.5 crore in raids on his premises last week).
Besides, there is the traditional political team from the Karunanidhi era. Among them are party veteran K N Nehru from Trichy, who headed the seat sharing talks on behalf of the DMK, and former Union ministers T R Baalu and A Raja, besides party veteran Duraimurugan.
While the DMK has hired Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) for this election, K Sunil, a poll strategist who has worked with Kishor, Stalin and the BJP leadership in the past, is the man advising EPS.
While EPS’s road shows are mostly organised by local leaders, Stalin’s poll campaigns have in attendance a battalion of I-PAC employees in uniforms.
Despite the I-PAC, Stalin is known to have his own style of candidate selection. For every seat, he would collect three names each from the I-PAC and from his party district secretaries, after which he would work on a parallel list. “Only those names that found a place in all three lists were given tickets,” said a DMK leader.
If it’s Sabareesan who coordinates with the party leadership in Stalin’s camp, the EPS camp has “SMS”: poll strategist Sunil, EPS’s son Mithun Kumar and K N Sathyamurthy, a former intelligence head of Tamil Nadu police. EPS’s closest aide is R Elangovan, chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Cooperative Bank.
In spite of all the diverse and complex factors that come into play in an election, for now, Stalin has an advantage on at least two counts.
One, it’s the AIADMK, which is up against 10 years of anti-incumbency, whereas Stalin, with his connect among the youth and his image as an effective administrator, will use this opportunity to seek a chance to govern. With the two parties fighting on their respective party symbols in over 170 of the 234 seats, anti-incumbency is likely to be a dominant factor.
Two, unlike the AIADMK, DMK’s negotiations with allies and seat allocation has been robust, with the alliance representing diverse sections and communities.
Besides the Congress, which is fighting from 25 seats of the 234 seats, the alliance has Thol Thirumavalavan’s Dalit party VCK, the CPI and CPM, Vaiko’s MDMK, the Indian Union Muslim League and another Muslim party, Manithenya Makkal Katchi (MMK).
EPS, on the other hand, is up against his own party rebels led by TTV Dhinakaran, who is likely to split AIADMK cadre votes in the Cauvery delta region and southern Tamil Nadu. Besides, its seat sharing talks have proved disastrous with the AIADMK losing at least six allies in the last one month, including Captain Vijayakanth’s DMDK and K Krishnasamy’s Puthiya Tamilagam.
The AIADMK’s association with the BJP is also likely to cost it minority Muslim and Christian votes — together they make up around 12 per cent of the electorate.
A senior AIADMK leader said, “BJP would have been nowhere in Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa had been alive. But EPS should be praised for whatever he did in this limited time in the CM post. If he had had his way, BJP wouldn’t even have been in the AIADMK alliance.”
But what is haunting the DMK the most is the heavy-handedness of local party satraps during their last tenure. Half a dozen DMK ministers were arrested on charges of land grabbing, illegal mining and even murder.
A DMK leader, however, said Stalin is unlikely to let that happen if he comes to power. “He is someone who makes corrections… He knows that if he lets our district secretaries and local leaders go on a rampage like last time, the DMK will never come back,” he said.
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